Tale of two countries: the digital disruption of government

By Jerry Fishenden & Marie Johnson

Monday November 10, 2014

Our recent paper — A Tale of Two Countries: the Digital Disruption of Government — considers two parliamentary-system governments, the United Kingdom and Australia, and their efforts to use technology as a lever of reform and modernisation of public services since the 1990s.

There are essential lessons to be learned from their work and that of other governments: despite the billions of pounds/dollars that have been spent over recent decades, government services have witnessed little of the scale and depth of improvement experienced by the best private digital organisations. The question is — why?

Researchers at the Manchester Centre for Development Informatics reported that an estimated US$3 trillion was spent around the world during the first decade of the 21st century on government information systems. Yet 60-80% of these projects failed in some way, leading to “a massive wastage of financial, human and political resources, and an inability to deliver the potential benefits of e-government to its beneficiaries”.

While household brands have seen technology completely redefine business — with the likes of Kodak and Blockbuster overtaken by entirely new market entrants — the digital age seems largely to have bypassed government. Technology has all too often been used merely to automate existing services and transactions, effectively fossilising them and all their pre-internet inefficiencies at a moment in time. Almost 20 years of online and e-government strategies have failed to deliver the anticipated service transformation centred on citizens’ needs.

“Part of the problem has been the lack of a coherent strategy for the future of public services in the digital era.”

Part of the problem has been the lack of a coherent strategy for the future of public services in the digital era. This is illustrated by a comparison of the Australian government online strategy from 2000 and the 2013 policy for E-Government and the Digital Economy. Both strategies follow an agency-centric approach: there is no reference to citizens, their needs and their experience, and only a general single reference to overhauling strategic common services, such as payments. Reform is explicitly ruled out — with a commitment to also keep paper and hardcopy forms.

In the digital era, paper forms do not need pointless digital replicas. Properly redesigned services will see unnecessary transactions from individual agencies streamlined, joined-up or abolished — driving down costs and improving frontline services. The paper-era forms and manual processes — and the clerical functions supporting them — will disappear from government services designed for the digital era.

Using technology merely to put existing forms and transactions online was never a good idea: it propagates a failed and socially divisive model from the era of mass duplication and paper-based inefficiency. It forces the citizen to do the hard work, providing the same information time after time after time, simply because of the poor design of public services within their current organisational fiefdoms. Forms are a clumsy, paper-era means of capturing data, as Amazon and other digital organisations have long since shown.

Digital era government needs to see transactions, processes and organisations simplified, stripped away, abolished, combined or transformed. Government will make much smarter use of data it already holds, simplifying the citizens’ experience of public services and providing governments with timely insight into what works and what doesn’t.

Such analytics will yield long-absent insight and help drive innovations in both public policy and service design. Governments will be able to conduct real-time modelling of possible welfare and taxation changes — seeing what impact a pull on the welfare or taxation lever has on which citizens and which communities. Much of the “do it and let’s see what happens” approach to policymaking will be displaced by a much more detailed understanding of how policy relates to practice, and its very real impact on citizens’ daily lives.

“This will be the public sector’s equivalent of moving from Blockbuster management to Netflix.”

The timeframes for change need to be unapologetically ambitious — what is at stake is so significant in terms of economic, social and human impact. This is about making rapid progress by trying, learning and improving on the fly, letting new services grow alongside the old until they are proven and adopted, while the older, broken systems, processes and even organisations can be allowed to wither and die as the new ones emerge to take their place. This will be the public sector’s equivalent of moving from Blockbuster management to Netflix.

Government needs to let this new, digital era organisation and culture grow successfully within. Unlike much of what has happened in the private sector — where new, greenfield organisations have come along and eaten the business of old, brownfield organisations — the public sector needs to catalyse its own reformation. This is what the 2010 report Revolution Not Evolution, and the consequential creation of the Government Digital Service, aims to achieve in the UK: not just the pointless polishing of what is already there, but its fundamental redesign for the digital era.

Making such a transition will be immensely disruptive to governments and their current ways of working — many managerial, administrative and clerical roles (and indeed organisations) will change beyond recognition, or even disappear. The effort to deliver this transformation will need to be imaginative, scientific, measured and agile. A commission or taskforce should be established with project teams redesigning and delivering government services around evidence-based citizen need, similar to the work being pioneered in the UK.

To succeed where previous technology-led initiatives failed — and to avoid another decade of financial, human and political waste — will require governments to commit to the digitally enabled redesign of public services, the organisational machinery of government behind them and its own relationships with citizens.

This is no longer a matter of choice for governments: it has to happen if our public services are to avoid a painful and potentially catastrophic existential crisis.

This is a short précis of A Tale of Two Countries: the Digital Disruption of Government — a comparative review and discussion of the e-government/online programs of Australia and the UK over the past 15-plus years.

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